From the Archives with... Doug Nye

Not so grand tourers

Goodwood gave saloon racing a slow start, but soon proved thrills also come in small packages

I am no fan of saloon car racing – why order pot-noodle when prime steak’s available? – but I can confess that I am quite looking forward to Goodwood’s forthcoming dedicated Austin
A35 ‘tea-pot’ race.

Back in the 1950s, the pre-war Brooklands-rooted BARC at Goodwood was very slow in accepting that production tin-tops could provide respectable racing rather than a “mere crowd-pleasing circus act” – despite Silverstone’s example. The club’s conservative thinking was based on the notion that motor sport on circuits was for sports cars, while production saloon cars’ rightful playground was rallying.

While the occasional tin-top that fell far short of being described as a ‘grand touring car’ did find its way into Goodwood Members’ Meeting handicap races, it speaks volumes – for example – that the Whitsun 1955 meeting confined them to just a three-lap Celebrities Handicap race. It was won by Richard ‘Stinker’ Murdoch’s Rolls-Royce 20/25 from athlete Chris Brasher’s Jowett Javelin and actor John Gregson’s Hillman Minx. Uh-huh?

Change came at the 1957 Whitsun Meeting, when a seven-lap ‘closed-car handicap’ was won by John Sprinzel’s Austin A35, a Ford Consul rolled at Woodcote, Morris Minors finished second and third and a Renault Dauphine fourth. Finally, in the May 1958 Whitsun Meeting, Goodwood hosted a significant-level ‘proper’ production saloon car race. It was won by Duncan Hamilton in ‘Noddy’ Coombs’s Jaguar 3.4 from the Equipe Endeavour 3.4s of Tommy Sopwith and Sir Gawaine Baillie. Fred Marriott’s Morris Minor shone before its clockwork ran out, and John Sprinzel’s Speedwell-tuned A35 ‘tea-pot’ and Barney Everley’s Hillman Minx were class winners.

John Sprinzel did more than most to popularise particularly rallying but also small-capacity saloon car racing, often contributing to contemporary magazines and writing his book Sleepless Knights (1962) – still a good read. He dedicated it to his mum “…for, amongst other things, lending me her Austin A30”. He recalled that car as going “very well indeed, and, in spite of tendencies to wallow, held the road as well as most of her contemporaries. Enthusiastic tuning…merely succeeded in lowering the top speed by about five miles per hour, killing any acceleration the car possessed and entirely eliminating low-down torque characteristics – proving beyond doubt there was more to the gentle art of faster-going than misguided application of surface grinder and rotary file…”

After a Triumph TR2, Sprinzel fielded A35 ‘119KMH’, “…which very soon dispelled any regrets at parting with the TR. [Team Speedwell tuner] George Hulbert’s efforts on the cylinder head and suspension were far more successful than my earlier tuning and these, together with the larger engine and better gearbox, made KMH into one of the most successful small saloon cars of the day. [It] was raced, rallied, driving tested, sprinted, demonstrated, road-tested by the press and used every day in town traffic for almost two years, in which time over 110,000 miles were covered with only one change of crankshaft and three sets of bearings. The total cost of modifications was under £100… Handling, braking and acceleration were quite fantastic, and I cannot recall any car which better deserved the title of ‘the poor man’s GT car’.”

He later replaced ‘KMH’ with a second A35 bought from the BMC Competitions Department – ‘MRX 342’ – and used it in the Monte Carlo Rally and in Sweden, together with several saloon car races. “but she had not the charm or the performance of the original ‘blood orange’, as [John] Bolster used to describe ‘KMH’…”

Race and rally preparation for less than £100? Hmm – that’s sure to make Goodwood’s coming race entrants weep. But, of course, if you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined.

The cup that cheered

Count Vincenzo Florio had few rules to contend with when in 1905 he decided to run a race for a prize bearing his name 

he basic organiSation of early motor races pretty much boggles the imagination today. But consider straight, deserted, traffic-free country roads and sparse local populations used to being told what to do not just by Government, but also by enthusiastic local or visiting toffs. One hundred and ten years ago, late in 1905, enthusiastic Count Vincenzo Florio – of whom much more would be heard – under-wrote his maiden Coppa Florio race, run on a road circuit he and friends selected based upon Brescia in north-eastern Italy, before passing through Cremona, Mantua, and then back to Brescia.

The course’s lap length was a full 104 miles and the Cup race was to comprise three laps. The chosen route was described as being “wonderful, full of long straights, great stretches through practically deserted country where the cars can open out to the utmost. The only objection was that the length of the circuit prevented anything being done to allay the dust, which was in consequence rather bad… and since there were only 22 cars spread over the 104 miles the danger was not very great…”.

The dust danger had still, however, been considered and in consequence ‘spacing controls’ were arranged to maintain sufficient intervals between the cars to give the dust clouds time to settle or disperse. If you were spectating at such a race, you shouldn’t expect too much wheel-to-wheel racing…

When the first competitor reached a spacing control he would be sent on at once, and as he left, a clock would be started marked in four-minute intervals. If a following car should arrive before the four minutes elapsed, it would be held until the clock confirmed that interval. Then it would be flagged away and the process restarted for each following runner. The system had been used in the French Gordon Bennett eliminating trials in the Auvergne and had worked pretty well – unlike the course telephone system that had been painstakingly installed there (85 miles of it), only for local peasants to nick the wires pre-race.

The entry for Count Florio’s Brescia race included five FIATs, five Mercedes (one of which was to be driven by Florio himself), three Italas, two Darracqs, three De Dietrichs, a couple of Clement-Bayards and two Isotta-Fraschinis “which were about the biggest racing cars ever constructed”.

The race around the long circuit was a confused affair from the start. The spacing controls introduced elapsed-time calculations that caused the Italian organisers considerable headaches. Gerald Rose remarked that this made “the position of the cars a matter of conjecture”. Completing the opening lap in 88 minutes 30 seconds, Fabry’s Itala was judged to be leading. Rougier’s De Dietrich then forged ahead with a fine second lap followed by amateur novice driver Raggio in his first race with his Itala, and superstar Fernand Gabriel’s De Dietrich third. Ceirano’s Itala lay fifth until he had a puncture on the last lap, then drove too far on the wheel rim whereupon it collapsed. Rougier encountered some problem that cost him about half an hour’s delay, and an exultant Raggio was judged the winner by almost 10 minutes from Duray’s De Dietrich and Vincenzo Lancia’s FIAT – so first and third for the home-team Italian cars and drivers. 

Gerald Rose again: “At the end no one had any idea whether Raggio, Duray, Lancia or Hémery (Darracq) had won. The last-named started and finished first and considered it highly probable that the race was his; but when the times were adjusted for the spacing controls he found he had dropped to fourth… The victory set the seal on Italy’s claim to be considered one of the most important countries in the production of racing cars. The Salemi Cup for team performance and the Italy Cup for the fastest time over the first 300 kilometres were also won by Italas.”

What would become Italian rosso corsa was on the march. The rivalry between the Italian and French industries would prevail way into the 1930s and Italian racing design would lead the world into the 1950s – but for some serious setbacks along the way from those wonderful people Enzo Ferrari would refer to as the TransAlpini, the Germans with Mercedes, Benz, the post-1926 Mercedes-Benz combine and Auto Union. They proved that if you really want to win, use a bigger bat.